David Bell is a bestselling and award-winning author whose work has been translated into multiple foreign languages. He’s currently an associate professor of English at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he directs the MFA program. His novels include Somebody’s Daughter, Bring Her Home, Since She Went Away, Somebody I Used to Know, The Forgotten Girl, Never Come Back, The Hiding Place, and Cemetery Girl.
I believe it was the legendary thriller writer Leo Tolstoy who said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family appears in a suspense novel.”
Okay, that’s not what Tolstoy really said. But if he had, he’d be correct. Families make great subject matter for thrillers. I agree so much that I frequently write thrillers about families, and here’s why:
For one thing, being in a family is a universal experience. Everybody comes from or develops some kind of family. It can be a biological family, an adopted family, a work family, a group of friends who are like family. We can’t escape the human desire to cluster together and connect. So when we write about families, everyone recognizes themselves or their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, colleagues. Oh, yeah, they say, I could totally see my mom doing something like that…
And here’s another thing about families — they all have secrets. The secrets can seem quite small and make you wonder why anyone would care to hide the information. (“Don’t tell anyone we can’t housebreak the dog!”) Or the secrets can be big and clearly the kind of things people keep to themselves. (“Don’t tell anyone why your sister had to move away for nine months!”)"Let me ask you something: What’s the scariest thing imaginable?"TWEET THIS QUOTE
But we all have secrets in our families. I know of a giant one in my family. It’s so big I can’t even talk about it. But maybe it’s already shown up in one of my novels. You never know… maybe we can even talk about it someday…when everyone involved is dead.
Secrets have a way of bubbling to the surface at some point. No matter how hard we try to keep them under wraps, they eventually pop up, sort of like a corpse that’s been dumped in a body of water. And when those secrets do emerge, they bring with them a web of complications. People learn they’ve been lied to. People learn they didn’t know someone quite as well as they thought. People learn that everything they thought they knew — perhaps their very identity — has been a lie.
Let me ask you something: What’s the scariest thing imaginable? For me, I’m terrified of needles and heights. But those things don’t scare me as much as the notion that someone close to me might have lied to or deceived me. Imagine looking over at the person sharing your bed and wondering if they’ve told you the truth. Could anything unsettle a home and a family more than that?
It’s true that we thriller writers often exaggerate the problems and secrets that families deal with. Most families don’t experience murder, kidnapping, extortion, disappearance. (Some do, of course.) But so many times those wild, exaggerated crimes that occur in a thriller start with something small. Something ordinary. A secret kept. A promise broken. The smallest splash becomes a tidal wave.
And maybe that’s why people like to read thrillers about families so much. When they see the disasters that happen to fictional characters on a page, they feel relieved. They think to themselves, Sure, Grandpa can be a pain in the butt sometimes, but at least he didn’t murder anyone…
We might look up from the page, take a deep breath, and be thankful our own lives aren’t so chaotic and complicated. In that way, the thriller writer who writes about the family does everyone an important service. We remind you of how much worse it could be.
This piece is the second in a two-part series that analyzes the future and sustainability of the gallery sector through the lens of professional sports. We recommend starting with Part I.
Like commercial galleries, professional sports leagues receive a lot more attention for what they produce than for how they’re structured, or why. And yet it’s remarkable how differently the two industries have evolved over nearly the same timeline, at least here in the US. The grand irony is that, despite a few years’ lead, the gallery system today is far less professionalized than any of the major American sports—and, I would argue, far less sustainable as a result.
Red Grooms, Home Run Sculpture at Miami Marlins Park during a preseason game against the New York Yankees in April 2012. Courtesy of Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images.
Head to Head
Let’s compare, shall we?
Knoedler, among the first commercial galleries founded on American soil, opened in New York in 1846. It wasn’t until 25 years later, in 1871, that the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players became the game’s original “major league”—and the first true pro sport in the US (contributing to its status as “America’s pastime”). This association would eventually morph into the National League, whose champion met the winner of the upstart American League in the first World Series in 1903.
What has transpired since then? Major League Baseball (MLB), as the two conjoined pro leagues are now known, consists of 30 individual franchises overseen by a central commissioner and governed by a 373-page agreementcovering everything from player transfers to revenue sharing to a robust talent development system (AKA the minor leagues). Overall, MLB generated over $10 billion in revenue in 2017, and it continues to serve as the model for baseball leagues now operating in 122 countries around the globe.
In comparison to this buttoned-up profile, the gallery system comes across like the type of sweat-streaked, wild-eyed “entrepreneur” who offers to “get you in on the ground floor” of some nebulous enterprise from the darkened corner of a dive bar.
Again, we have no reliable revenue numbers or other operational data for galleries, thanks to the fact that every known one of them remains privately held. Although all typical commercial laws apply to the trade, its only internal codes of conduct remain siloed within voluntary professional associations, such as the Art Dealers Association of America, or by-application-only events, such as Art Basel.
We’re not even really sure how many galleries and dealers there areworldwide, given that the last time we had two reports to judge from, their estimates differed by about 600 percent. (UBS and Art Basel’s 2017 reportestimated over 296,000 private sellers, while the TEFAF Art Market Reporttallied only about 51,000.)
Most importantly, while the disparate franchises in MLB thrive together, an entire tier of galleries—as well as many of the non-star artists they exist to champion—are being pummeled into submission by recent conditions, threatening the stability of the entire ecosystem.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Regardless of the many differences between pro sports and contemporary art, the former provides a framework for how to build a niche collection of like-minded business owners into a sustainable network that serves each member’s different needs and incentives.
George Steinmetz, New York Air. Photo by George Steinmetz, courtesy Anastasia Photo.
The Game Plan
Changes on this scale don’t happen overnight—or even over a few years. It took about a century for Major League Baseball to morph into the sleek organizational juggernaut it is today. The sport’s two major divisions—the American League and National League—technically didn’t merge into a single legal entity until 2000, although they operated in harmony for decades before.
In short, I’m not suggesting that the gallery sector follow in the footsteps of an impossible ideal here.
Without tracking every twist and turn in the saga, what enabled professional baseball to flourish was a process called collective bargaining.
The idea is straightforward: Large groups empower a few trustworthy representatives to negotiate on their behalf in pursuit of terms that everyone in the collective can live with. Those terms get ratified in a mutual, publicly available contract that runs for a handful of years, after which the sides re-engage to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement informed by how well (or not) the last one worked.
Today, every major American professional sport runs on the path cleared by collective bargaining. For each league, the agreement guiding the business represents a compromise between the owners and the players’ union. All of this is enabled by what’s generally referred to as the “league office”—basically, the internal oversight body created to facilitate and, when necessary, enforce the terms of the collective bargaining agreement on both sides.
Now, it would be ideal if artists could become the equivalent of the players’ union in this comparison. It would also expand the potential impact of any collective bargaining agreement, since, legally speaking, I don’t believe regulations on artist-specific issues (like anti-poaching protections) could be enacted unless the artists are involved in the negotiations.
But while I think it would be to artists’ advantage to organize, their participation doesn’t seem to be strictly necessary for substantial gallery reform on other subjects of consequence, like the possible creation of revenue-sharing pools or even a cooperative “minor league” system of the kind presaged, perhaps, by the partnership between Metro Pictures and 47 Canal.
Instead, the parallel that matters is the one between the owners of pro sports franchises and the owners of galleries, not least because both deal with some of the same inherent tensions.
William Klein, Baseball Cards (1955). Photo: artnet.
While anyone who owns a controlling share in a pro team in 2018 is hugely wealthy by almost any other standard, the key is that there are significant gaps separating owners within their own ranks. The most crucial of these is the one between “big market” and “small market” or “mid-market” cities—a distinction useful for imagining compromises between high-end and mid-tier or emerging galleries.
How does that distinction materialize in practice? Broadly speaking, the owners of the New York Yankees want certain aspects of baseball to be regulated differently than the owners of, say, the Kansas City Royals.
For example, the Yankees would argue against implementing compensation payments to any franchise whose players get signed away by another team at the end of their contract, because they are one of the most likely franchises to have to pay that compensation. The Royals, whose smaller market (and smaller cash reserves) makes them less likely to acquire top free agents, would take the opposite side.
The larger point is that these schisms between the richest franchise owners and the less well-off tear open anew—and must be mended again—every time a new collective bargaining agreement needs to be written. In some cases, these divisions between owners can be as extreme as the ones between the owners and players.
Christian Marclay, Still from The Clock (2010).
This is where the league office comes in—or more specifically, the commissioner, whose entire job consists of facilitating the continued growth and smooth function of the sport as a whole. These duties naturally include making peace between ownership factions, which can only be done when everyone involved agrees (however begrudgingly) that the league’s bylaws are working for them.
Of course, it’s not as if the commissioner of any pro league descended from the clouds on a ray of light and imposed order on a cabal of resistant owners. The owners themselves had to decide to establish the league office and select a smart, talented, and experienced professional to run it. What they didn’t have to do was resolve their internal disputes and competing interests all by themselves. They just had to agree it was crucial for the overall business’s sustainability to find someone else to help them do it.
The gallery sector has reached this same crossroads. A mega-gallerist could craft the most brilliant, elegant fix to the system imaginable, but this magical solution would evaporate into the ether if it were simply proposed from the stage of a conference and casually discussed in the aisles of the next art fair. To make change real, the gallerists themselves need to organize in a dedicated way.
How does this happen? The obvious origin point would be the existing professional associations at different levels of the market and in different geographical regions: the ADAA, NADA, Comité Professionnel des Galeries d’Art, and others.
If each of these organizations elected a few representatives to carry forward the concerns of the different factions within their larger group, collective bargaining sessions could be facilitated. The reps could then take the results of those sessions back to their constituencies for reactions and refinement. Wash, rinse, repeat until everyone discovers enough common ground to formalize a possible agreement.
Maybe these collective bargaining sessions would be overseen by an impartial arbitrator—a proto-commissioner of sorts who understands the incentives and challenges facing the full cross-section of galleries. Maybe they should also include representatives from the various art fairs, given how critical (and controversial) those events have become to the trade. Or maybe all you need is a closed-door meeting with a quorum of gallerists dedicated to moving the ball forward on a handful of universally important issues.
Questions about the exact parameters of these meeting aren’t what’s preventing them. A lack of vision and a lack of commitment are. Everybody loses if no one ever gets on the field.
A man stands on baseball bats in an untitled piece by American artist David Adamo on October 23, 2013 in Paris at the FIAC International Contemporary Art Fair. Photo: Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty.
Upon Official Review
Now, I can anticipate the criticisms about micro-management, corporatization, and my own naiveté. How preposterous is it to believe that a collective of gallerists with different interests could even agree on which restaurant to meet at, let alone how to solve problems as complex as the middle-market massacre?
Well, first off, rival owners in every American pro sport did it decades ago. There are plenty of other precedents, too. Again, forms of collective bargaining power industries as varied as teaching, manufacturing, Hollywood filmmaking, and yes, even museum work. These are hard problems, but it’s not like we’re trying to terra-form a new Earth here.
Second, it’s either ignorant or disingenuous to act as if implementing a limited set of mutually beneficial, common-sense regulations is the same as turning the gallery sector into a soulless, mechanized dictatorship. Buying into these types of false equivalencies is exactly how you paralyze an ecosystem being pillaged by changing environmental conditions.
Besides, if galleries are truly being obliterated unnecessarily by a broken system, why should we hesitate or half-step on reform? Call me crazy, but I’m willing to let the pilots try anything they want, as soon as they want, if all the evidence tells me that letting the plane stay on its current course will crash us into a mountain.
George Kalinsky, Patrick Ewing and the Knicks win the NBA Eastern Conference Championship, June 5, 1994. Photo courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.
The Will to Win
Although we should never forget the impact of a dramatic shift in buyer behavior, galleries have nevertheless reached the present crisis partly by choice, and choice is the only thing that can extricate them from it.
Art sales will continue with or without reform. It’s just a matter of whether they will happen in a healthy, sustainable ecosystem, or whether the mega-galleries will completely monopolize the trade through brute-force acquisitions of smaller galleries and the creation of vertically integrated talent pipelines that begin in leading MFA programs and end in the white cube—an all-too-real future I’ve written about elsewhere.
Remember, the actors with the least incentive to change are always the ones succeeding as things are.
Still, even at the apex of the gallery hierarchy, there’s a growing awareness that recent trends could be bad for business, perhaps sooner than later. For example, top sellers definitely have the resources to establish entire departments (and likely, separate spaces) for the development of young artists. But I’m also convinced that they don’t want to spend the time and money required to do so unless it’s absolutely necessary (or at least, cheaper and more efficient than continuing to use mid-tier galleries as an organic feeder system).
If gallerists across tiers are cognizant enough of the industry’s structural problems to debate a band-aid solution like an art-fair tax, then, let’s hope they’re just as serious about engaging on an unprecedented set of changes that could actually put the trade on a path to sustainability. Even if the rest of my proposal strikes you as asinine, one lesson from pro sports is undeniable: Despite all other factors, sometimes what matters most is the sheer will to push yourself beyond your old limits.
With the average gallery now in worse shape than the shattered smile of a bare-knuckle boxer, the primary market has officially reached its “put up or shut up” moment. Every day seems to bring another announcement that a midlevel or modestly sized gallery has decided to call it quits. Often, these messages either allude to or openly rail against the increasingly winner-takes-all economics of the contemporary art trade. And yet we’ve seen few serious proposals for reform, and even less action.
High-end and mega-galleries now regularly lure away rising commercial stars from the galleries that helped develop these artists. Many buyers—particularly the vastly wealthy subset I refer to as COINs, or Collectors Only In Name—lack the time, the inclination, or both to immerse themselves in either art history or the gallery scene, especially those outside the Chelsea-Mayfair-H Queen’s axis. The realities of the attention economy therefore drive the business deeper into convention centers around the world for art fairs, where all sides of the industry converge for a few high-stakes days that can make or break exhibitors operating without an ample war chest.
Jeff Koons, One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr.J Silver Series (1985) Image: Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.
How undeniably bad have things gotten? So bad that David Zwirner, unsolicited, recently tossed out the concept of imposing an art fair “tax” on himself and his fellow mega-gallery peers to subsidize the participation of smaller galleries… before he, in the words of my colleague Kate Brown, “admitted that he did not know or care what an art fair booth costs these days.”
This may be one of the most unintentionally revealing moments of art-market class disparity since Jeff Koons declared, “I sometimes take a helicopter to travel to my farm, but I don’t live a luxurious lifestyle.” While respected mid-tier gallerists like Jose Freire are pulling out of fairs altogether because of the literal and figurative costs, those same costs don’t even qualify as consequential enough for Zwirner—whose gallery did 20 fairs in 2017 alone—to be able to estimate.
There’s been significant debate about the idea of an art fair tax in the weeks since, though the discussion around it has somewhat evolved. For instance, instead of charging a fee based on the cost of a heavyweight exhibitor’s booth, trailblazing gallerist Mitchell Algus suggested, in ARTnews, that exhibitors’ booth fees should be based on how much they sell at the fair.
Howardena Pindell, Video Drawings: Baseball (1973-1976). Image: Courtesy of Garth Greenan Gallery.
Swinging for the Fences
With all due respect to these interesting proposals, they’re thinking too small. Much like recent American politics, the promise of implementing new taxes is a mirage mostly useful in distracting optimists and moderates from the full scale of the dysfunction we’re now embroiled in. Just as with gallery-share initiatives like Condo, what ultimately matters at fairs is whether or not buyers are actually acquiring the works exhibitors are showing. If not, even participating for free wouldn’t help struggling galleries keep their noses above water for long.
For this reason, debating the ins and outs of an art fair tax is like pretending that two people with years of disappointments, resentments, and broken promises between them can salvage their marriage by scheduling a weekly “date night”: It’s too little and too late to overcome how drastically the relationship has changed from an earlier era.
Such proposals reflect a mindset that still imagines an era when art was a boutique industry. As just one data point to illustrate the sea change that has overtaken the art world, collector and art-market analyst Alain Servais noted in his 2015 essay “Art in the Shadow of Art Market Industrialization” that total auction sales in the US, EU, and Hong Kong for contemporary art—defined as work made by artists born after 1950—increased roughly 21-fold between 2000 and 2013, from just $41 million to nearly $850 million.
And while we should always be cautious about treating the auction sector and the gallery sector as one-to-one, the qualitative changes mentioned earlier only underscore the extremes of wealth that have made it harder and harder for smaller galleries to compete with the bigger players. Now, the most successful galleries are selling their way into an altogether different league than everyone else.
First, let’s establish this: Although I love galleries (and spent eight years working in them), there is no moral imperative for them to succeed.
Lost in the furor over the epidemic of gallery closures is the fact that the overwhelming majority of small businesses across industries are not long for this world. According to data from the US Small Business Administration, 80 percent of new American businesses close in their first year. Of the survivors, about half shut down within five years. Of those survivors, two-thirds never make it to their 10th anniversary. And rather than a recent phenomenon, these attrition rates have been “remarkably consistent over the years.”
Together, these stats suggest that gallerists would do well to remember former Indiana University men’s basketball coach Mike Davis, who once judged, “You’re not special unless you find a cure for death.”
It’s not just because of my brain’s well-documented penchant for drawing outlandish parallels that I bring up sports here. As preposterous as it would have seemed to me when I was a disaffected art kid growing up in Midwestern (American) football country, professional sports at least offer food for thought, if not a full game plan, for how the gallery sector could claw its way out of this mess.
And the best way to begin is by sussing out a sports-based solution to a single issue of consequence: the damage done to smaller galleries when their most in-demand artists (or estates) leave for the bright lights and greater promise of bigger galleries.
Only a few years ago, the poaching of artists was seen as a stunning betrayal and a legitimate scandal. Georgina Adam notes in her essential 2013 book Big Bucks that a young Marianne Boesky was “devastated” when, after seven years of collaboration, Takashi Murakami departed her stable for Gagosian in 2006, and that mid-level Parisian gallerist Kamel Mennour claimed he plunged into a six-month depression after Adel Abdessemed left his roster for Zwirner in 2008.
Today, though, these types of transfers have become business as usual. When Hauser & Wirthannounced “exclusive” representation of Amy Sheralda few months ago, the reaction around the industry mostly seemed to amount to a resigned shrug. (Monique Meloche, with whom Sherald has shown for years, was adamant that she will continue to work with the artist.)
But like injecting morphine before one of your limbs is hacked off by a cleaver, our current numbness to poaching doesn’t make its results any less harmful.
Losing an artist just as their career blasts into the stratosphere means that a gallerist loses years of investment in developing and promoting an artist, with little to show for it in return. Sure, their track record of successfully launching a career may make the jilted gallerist slightly more attractive to the next promising young talent looking for short-term guidance—but you can’t pay your rent with reputation.
Worse, as Edward Winkleman emphasizes in his 2014 book, Selling Contemporary Art: How to Navigate the Evolving Market, there could be a brutal second-order effect on the industry writ large: If mid-level gallerists collectively conclude that “nurturing artists during their post-emerging/pre-blue chip phase” is a fool’s errand, they’ll have no incentive to continue playing that role, and the entire midsection of the gallery ecosystem could cave in.
Artist Amy Sherald at the official portrait unveiling of former U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.
An Idea Still Kicking Around
The key, then, would be to create a system to financially incentivize smaller galleries to develop young or under-recognized artists, and establish a solid foundation for their market even if they later leave to climb the commercial pyramid.
In art-circuit speaking engagements in 2012, Servais proposed one such model (which subsequently appeared in the press via Scott Reyburn in 2013): the regulations on player transfers maintained by FIFA, the international governing body for football associations (meaning “soccer leagues,” for my fellow Yankees). The details are slightly more complex—the full relevant document swells to 83 pages—but the central tenet concerns the “solidarity contributions” required of bigger clubs before they can hire away rising stars from the clubs “involved in [their] training and education over the years.”
The gist is this: Between ages 12 and 23, any time a footballer moves between clubs, the acquiring club pays five to ten percent of the player’s compensation to the training clubs, pro-rated to account for when, and how long, they employed the player.
Rather than the training clubs being left with nothing when their time, effort, and money helps elevate a developmental player to pro-caliber, then, tangible rewards incentivize them to continue seeking out and coaching new faces with the potential for greatness.
Although the basic applicability to the gallery system is obvious, there are many, many terms that would need to be worked out before this system could be widely and sustainably implemented in the art world. What would be the equivalent age parameters? What type and amount of compensation would be involved in transfers? What investments on the gallery’s part would qualify as ample “training and education”?
Winkleman unpacks several options in Selling Contemporary Art, and I have my own answers on the minutiae. However, the crucial point is that none of the specific answers matter in light of larger, thornier obstacles that need to be overcome first.
Danh Vo, Art Against the Immigration Ban poster (2017). Courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
If you’re thinking we can’t adopt transfer fees without widespread implementation of representation contracts between artists and gallerists, you’d be right. But there’s more to the story.
Vanishingly rare though they are, gallery representation contracts do exist today. (I was involved in executing one in my gallery days.) Still, they would need to become universal across tiers of the sector to make transfer fees workable. Which means, I think, that they need to start at the lower end of the commercial hierarchy.
Why? The mightiest commercial galleries have only one incentive to lead the way on this issue: Star artists’ increasing willingness to hopscotch between galleries as perpetual free agents. In recent years, big names like Richard Prince, Anish Kapoor, and Danh Vo have all proven willing to show at certain major commercial spaces without accepting ongoing representation. But these intra-tier transfers are not as deadly as when artists leap from a lower market tier to a higher one, because powerhouse galleries are so much better equipped to weather departures. Low risk equates to low pressure for change.
Since the impact of a rising artist’s departure is vastly more dangerous to smaller galleries, then, they should lead the way in shifting the paradigm. History shows that high-end galleries aren’t going to voluntarily reward them for developing artists. Which makes artist contracts a case where the best defense is a good offense.
Zoe Buckman, Champ. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Knuckling Up for the Next Round
As promising as this alternative appears, establishing simple contracts may not render smaller galleries bulletproof to losing hot artists for nothing.
The cold reality is this: If a big gallery learns that an artist it wants to acquire already has a “solidarity contribution” built into their contract with a smaller gallery, the big gallery will probably respond by either abandoning the pursuit altogether, or lawyering up to try to punch holes in the agreement to get the artist anyway.
Neither of these outcomes is healthy for the industry. In the first case, ambitious artists—and perhaps all artists—would likely villainize contracts and their current galleries as career impediments. In that sense, the poison pill in the agreement breaks open and seeps into the existing relationship, perhaps leading to either the same premature end or a miserable lame duck period for artist and gallerist alike.
In the second case (lawyering up), it’s entirely plausible that a big gallery’s high-dollar legal counsel could find enough vulnerabilities in the artist’s agreement with his current gallery to get it shredded—or, even more likely, to simply threaten a war of attrition that the smaller gallery can’t afford to defend against. (If you want to know what it’s like to be hopelessly out-spent by the opposing party in court even if the evidence is on your side, look at what OJ Simpson’s gilt-edge legal team did to Marcia Clark in his 1995 murder trial.)
This means it’s to everyone’s advantage—small galleries, big galleries, and artists—to strive for a transfer system that all parties can agree on. And the only way to make this seeming fantasy a reality is to engage in the kinds of processes that established the rules now governing relative harmony in industries as disparate as American movies, automotive manufacturing, and yes, professional sports: unionization and collective bargaining.
We’ll walk through the possibilities and pitfalls of that future in the second installment.